Two British snowboarders will tomorrow morning be taking part in the first event of the Winter Olympics, the slopestyle, despite concerns mounting over the safety of the course.
Billy Morgan and Jamie Nicholls will compete on the Rosa Khutor slopes a day after the United States’ Shaun White, the world’s most famous snowboarder, withdrew from the event citing injury fears.
“With the practice runs I’ve taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is t too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on,” White said.
The course has already claimed the pre-Games favourite for the slopestyle when Norway’s Torstein Horgmo broke his ankle earlier in the week. Two female snowboarders, a Slovene and a Finn, have also been injured.
Morgan, a 24-year-old from Southampton, and Nicholls, four years younger and from Bradford, are the first of seven Britons in action on Thursday in a series of heats ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony. Jenny Jones and Aimee Fuller follow the men on to the slopes in the women’s slopestyle qualifying – both are expected to make the top 22 and so reach the weekend’s finals – while Morgan, should he qualify, offers the first prospect of a British medal on Saturday morning. He finished fourth in last year’s world championships and made the podium in this season’s World Cup.
White hurt his left wrist on Wednesday, prompting his withdrawal in order to focus on the half-pipe, in which he is defending champion.
“With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on,” said White, who like Horgmo was expected to contend for the gold on Saturday.
“There are definitely concerns about the course. It’s been interesting to see how it’s developed and changed over the past couple of days. The big question is, if it will continue to change? Because every day, they have riders meetings and they give feedback. Sometimes there’s changes, sometimes there’s not.”
Another leading snowboarder, the Canadian Mark McMorris, described the jumps on the course as “kind of obnoxiously tall”. Morgan, though, enjoyed his first taste. “It’s really good,” he said. “The jumps are perfect.”
Nicholls fell during practice but was not seriously injured despite landing on his head after over-reaching a jump. Competitors are marked on the tricks and jumps they perform down the course.
Their daredevil stunts have made snowboarders compulsive viewing for a new generation of thrill seekers wanting to push the boundaries of the Olympics.
When everything goes right and they land safely, there are high-fives and fist-pumps all around as the crowds cheer and yell for more.
But when it goes wrong, it can go badly wrong. Behind all the bravado and cockiness is the chilling realisation that snowboarders risk life and limb every time they hurl themselves down the mountain.
In 2009, Kevin Pearce, one of White’s great rivals, was critically injured when he slammed his head on the ice while training in Utah. He spent six days in a coma and months recovering from his brain injuries but was lucky to live.
In January 2012, Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, a four-times gold medallist at the X-Games, died from injuries she suffered when she hit her head in a fall while training in Utah.
Matt Parr will on Thursday be the first man in action in the Iceberg Skating Palace when he leads Britain’s figure skaters into the team competition in the men’s short programme. Britain were surprise qualifiers, 10th of the 10 countries who are competing, and it meant an unexpected call-up for Parr, whose only event this is. His Games are likely to be over before they officially begin, although the women’s part of the team event is not wrapped up until the weekend.
“This is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience – realistically it could be the only time I ever get to go to an Olympic Games,” said Parr. And what about the rest of the Games? “I will take it in, see as much as possible and be there to support Team GB in whatever way I am needed.”